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Why Younger Designers Are Building Archives

Once the preserve of luxury megabrands with long histories, archives are becoming de rigueur for a handful of fashion labels striding into their second decade.
Garde Robe in New York houses many of the archives of the city's ready-to-wear designers | Source: Courtesy
By
  • Osman Ahmed

LONDON, United Kingdom — Once the preserve of heritage-conscious megabrands like Dior, archives are becoming de rigueur for fashion houses big and small. In fact, several ready-to-wear labels around a decade old have been investing in brand archives that serve a range of purposes beyond design inspiration.

"The ten-year mark probably has more to do with when a brand feels comfortable with the money they're going to have to invest and less to do with it being a 'valuable' time to do so," says Julie Ann Miles (née Orsini), an independent New York-based archivist who has worked with Jason Wu, Proenza Schouler, Tom Ford and Ralph Rucci. "Even though the money involved can seem daunting, I always tell clients that we can put these amazing assets to work for you, not only to help offset the cost of managing the archive, but also to draw consumer interest to the brand," she continues. "I've done everything from four-figure projects to [projects] that cost millions of dollars."

“It helps me maintain a continuity from season to season,” says Derek Lam, who began creating a “rudimentary” archive since his very first season 14 years ago, but admits that it is not complete as some catwalk samples were sold to private clients. “Sometimes, revisiting a prior collection or specific piece from the archive brings up unresolved intentions which I want to explore further.” For Spring/Summer 2011, Lam challenged himself to take favourite pieces from his archive and improve upon them, which he describes as “super satisfying”, adding that archives also provide the company with ammunition when it comes to intellectual property disputes.

“It is incredibly valuable for me to archive and very relevant because archives become an amazing source of inspiration and build upon the heritage of the brand,” adds Jason Wu, who began restoring pieces and packing them in acid-free paper and board as far back as his third season, eight years ago. “We have to know our past in order to create the future.”

When Roksanda Ilincic celebrated the tenth anniversary of her London-based label in 2015, her archive proved to be an important tool. To mark the occasion, she created exact replicas of ten signature pieces – and continues to revisit her archive when designing new collections. "What I think is important about archives is that it helps you understand the brand's DNA and identity," says Ilincic. "Also, for new members of staff that arrive at the company, it's a good way for them to become familiar with what I've done."

Ilincic once kept her earlier collections piled up and scattered around in various cupboards, but began considering a proper archive just five years into her career. Instead of a single space, the designer has opted for separate storage spaces and employs freelancers to come in throughout the year for maintenance, which cuts costs on having a large storage space near her studio and a full-time archivist.

“There are a lot of pieces from the four collections a year, so I’m not archiving every single piece,” she says. “It’s an investment, but there’s an even bigger value for the future as pieces re-gain their value and things come back into fashion.” There’s also the added benefit of having something to draw on creatively. “Designers don’t have enough time, so an archive is important,” says Ilincic. “There are things that you can’t see in a photograph, like the finishing and the construction. When you have a real garment in front of you it’s easy to see and replicate.”

We have to know our past in order to create the future.

"The rise of the fashion archive is inextricably linked to the phenomenon of the fashion exhibition," asserts curator Shonagh Marshall, who has staged fashion exhibitions at London's Somerset House and helped establish archives for fashion houses such as Christian Louboutin and Alexander McQueen, which only began creating a proper archive in 2010 after the eponymous designer's death. "Designers who are at the ten-year mark probably didn't think their work would be in museums or exhibitions when they were starting out, but nowadays, it's expected and accepted to place contemporary garments alongside historical dress in exhibitions."

Marshall advises designers to keep significant pieces from the early stages of their labels and not sell everything off at sample sales. “Alexander McQueen left the clothes from his second collection in a bin bag outside a King's Cross club because he didn’t want to pay for the cloakroom,” she says of the notoriously missing McQueen collection. “He also paid people in clothing.”

Marshall also cautions designers not to think of an archive as a one-off investment, but as an ongoing project that requires constant attention. “I could get one running, but maintaining it is a full-time job,” says Marshall. “You can’t cut corners, especially as you’re using it all the time.” Threats such as moth damage, light fading, chemical exposure, perspiration stains and climate temperature can destroy a priceless collection of garments.

Outsourcing is also an option. Garde Robe is a garment storage service used by several New York-based labels, including Jason Wu, Oscar de la Renta and Carolina Herrera (as an official partner of the CFDA, it offers discounted rates for members). "Some designers have a couple of dozen pieces and others have 30,000 pieces," says Doug Greenberg, Garde Robe's vice president of sales and marketing. "We pioneered the 'Cyber Closet' in 2001, which is like an e-commerce site where everything is organised by colour, pattern, embellishment, designers. You can create a cart and we deliver to the studio or shoot location in stain-free 'red carpet-ready' conditions."

A fashion archive may not always be composed of just garments, but it can also include important business records and other brand ephemera. Rio Jade Ali, a fashion archivist who has worked both for luxury houses and smaller independent labels, says archives can serve a wide range of departments within a company — not just the design studio. “It could be for marketing content or a social media campaign,” she says. “It’s about communicating what you want as your narrative. People are becoming more aware of that and realising the potential of keeping something in its original form.”

Erdem Moralioglu established an archive with the help of a museum-trained professional, who documented the designer's collections, as well as the ephemera he uses for mood boards and sets for his London Fashion Week shows. "In most instances, I have each complete collection, but in some cases where something is missing we have looked into re-acquiring it as it's such an important resource for me and the team," says Moralioglu, who established his ready-to-wear label in 2005. "It's a significant commitment and investment of time and money, but it's something that's so important."

But not everyone agrees. "I don't think a decade-old archive is useful yet," adds Dal Chodha, editor of non-seasonal publication Archivist, which devotes each issue to the archive of a specific brand, the most recent being Chloé. For young brands, he says, archives can be a distraction that saps time and resources from a designer's main goal: to sell clothes. "It's a luxury to be able to build an archive because most designers need to sell the jackets they make."

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